At crossroads, Putin looks West

Russia's president meets today with European leaders to discuss common enemy, new cooperation.

In the geopolitical aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin faces a defining choice: keep to the isolationist instincts of his KGB past, or follow the dream of his hero, the Westward-gazing Peter the Great.

Mr. Putin is in Brussels today at Russia's annual summit with heads of the 15-member European Union. Their relationship has been deadlocked by seemingly intractable disputes over the Western military alliance NATO's expansion into East Europe, the Kremlin's brutal war against the secessionist region of Chechnya, and other issues.

But Western solidarity in the gathering campaign against international terrorism has presented Russia with a fundamental strategic choice - one that experts say Putin has decisively made in favor of siding with the US and its allies.

Although it may have been unthinkable barely a month ago, the door now seems open to broad military and security cooperation between Moscow and Washington, rapid Russian accession to the World Trade Organization, and perhaps, down the road, Russian membership in the EU and NATO.

"A new epoch burst upon the world when the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, and Putin was one of the first leaders to understand what it means," says Sergei Chugrov, an expert with the Institute of International Relations and World Economy, which trains Russian diplomats. "Russia will either drift into the margins of the global system, or it must drop its differences and move into the mainstream of Western life."

A great deal is at stake. By integrating Russia with the West, Putin, an ex-KGB agent, could achieve the vision of a czar he has professed to greatly admiring, Peter the Great, and foster Russia's development as a stable, modern, prosperous pillar of European civilization.

But Putin is also courting the ire of Russian nationalists and military hawks, who resent being roped into the ranks of the West and fear the penetration of US power into the heart of the former Soviet Union.

Another worry here is how Russia's 20 million Muslims - and far greater numbers in neighboring ex-Soviet republics - might react if looming American-led military operations in Afghanistan start to look like an anti-Islamic crusade.

"There is no doubt that Putin has made up his mind," says Mr. Chugrov. "But this policy will have to stand a long and tough testing period. There are no guarantees that it will survive."

Moscow-based defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer cautions: "All that is holding us [Moscow and Washington] together is a common enemy. We have a consensus only because it regards questions where it is hard to disagree."

Today, Putin will meet with EU officials and hold one-to-one talks with NATO Secretary General George Robertson. Topping the agenda is Russia's involvement in the US-led antiterror coalition and ways to cement cooperation in what is shaping up to be a long-term, globe-girdling campaign. But the Kremlin has signaled that it is looking to extend these beginnings into an entire new relationship between Russia and the West. That could include Russia's joining NATO, if the alliance evolved into a more broadly-based security system for Europe, Putin hinted last week. "There is no longer any reason for the West not to conduct talks" on Russian membership in NATO, he said.

The Kremlin is seeking more immediate dividends as well. Russia's admission into the WTO, formerly viewed as a distant possibility, seems fixed for as early as next year after talks between Russian officials and U.S. Trade Representive Robert Zoellick in Moscow last week.

Relief from the burden of Soviet-era debt is also high on Moscow's wish list. Debt-servicing charges by 2003 are calculated to be $19 billion, the size of the country's entire budget for that year.

But there are plenty of pitfalls along the road to a changed relationship. One concern among Russian experts is that the West will deem the Kremlin's cautious commitment to the war on terrorism inadequate. Putin has pledged to share intelligence with Western special services, open Russian air corridors for "humanitarian supplies" to the site of the antiterrorist operation in Central Asia, and take part in non-combat "search and rescue" missions inside Afghanistan. But he has categorically ruled out any use of Russian military forces in the fighting.

"The West should understand that Putin has gone the maximum distance that he is able at this time," says Boris Makarenko of the independent Fund For Political Technologies in Moscow.

Analysts cite a survey by the independent VTsIOM public opinion research center last week that showed 58 percent of Russians, their memories of the USSR's disastrous 1980s war in Afghanistan still fresh, believe their country should remain neutral in the war on terrorism. The poll showed that 72 percent fear that retaliatory strikes in Afghanistan could ignite world war.

Another possible thorn is the ongoing war in Chechnya. Last week, Putin offered for the first time to negotiate with representatives of rebel president-in-hiding Aslan Maskhadov - although Putin said such talks would only concern time and place of rebel surrender.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, warns: "President Putin has tried to use the events of September 11 to get carte blanche for the conduct of Russian federal forces in Chechnya. "The EU can't allow this to happen."

Russian experts insist that Putin has made a choice that will benefit the world. Says Alexander Solovyov, a political scientist at Moscow State University: "He believes that Russia's moral and political support in this crisis will open an era of trust, and that we can go on from there to build new institutions and a new system of security to bind Russia and the West together for the first time in history."

Material from Agence France-Presse was used in this report.

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